“Do you realize the Australians have a bomber that can put a bomb through that window on to the table here in front of us?” Former Indonesian defense minister Benny Murdani speaking about RAAF F-111C.
The F-111, with its variable sweep wing, terrain following radar, military-rated afterburning turbofan engines and self-contained escape module, was one of the most technically innovative designs seen amongst military aircraft.
The F-111C (affectionately known as the “Pig”, due to its long snout and terrain-following ability) was a variant of the F-111 Aardvark medium-range interdictor and tactical strike aircraft, developed by General Dynamics to meet Australian requirements. The design was based on the F-111A model but included longer wings and strengthened undercarriage. The Australian government ordered 24 F-111Cs to equip the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1963, but the aircraft were not delivered until 1973 because of long-running technical problems.
Nevertheless after entering service the F-111 proved highly successful. It was the fastest, longest range combat aircraft in Southeast Asia. Aviation historian Alan Stephens has written that they were “the preeminent weapons system in the Asia-Pacific region” throughout their service and provided Australia with “a genuine, independent strike capability”. Stewart Wilson, in his book Lincoln, Canberra and F-111 in Australian Service, described the F-111C as “an unqualified success…, providing Australia with a potent strike capability in an aircraft which, a quarter of century after its first flight remains second to none.” Former Indonesian defense minister Benny Murdani told his counterpart Kim Beazley that when others became upset with Australia during cabinet meetings, Murdani told them “Do you realize the Australians have a bomber that can put a bomb through that window on to the table here in front of us?”
During 1979 and 1980 four of these aircraft were converted to the RF-111C reconnaissance variant. Four ex-United States Air Force (USAF) F-111As were purchased by Australia and converted to F-111C standard in 1982 to replace F-111Cs destroyed during accidents. Australia also operated 15 F-111Gs between 1993 and 2007, mainly as trainers.
As explained by Peter E Davies in his book F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat, RAAF F- 111s participated in numerous Red Flag and Pacific region exercises such as Pitch Black, but they also flew operations in a potentially hostile situation. In 1999 F-111Cs and RF-111Cs were moved to the ‘bare base’ at Tindal, in the Northern Territory, as part of the No 95 Contingency Strike Wing in response to tensions over the Indonesian province of East Timor during a period of civil disorder there. Tindal was opened in 1989 (replacing RAAF Darwin) as one of several forward basing areas for strike fighters. East Timor had been taken over by Indonesia in 1975 after Portugal withdrew its colonial control, and a violent opposition to repressive Indonesian rule ended with a UN-sponsored agreement to allow East Timor independence in 1999.
The RAAF flew in support of a UN-mandated, Australian-led International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), which was sent in in September 1999 to restore order. Australia’s purchase of F-111s had originally been prompted by Indonesia’s expansionist policies, threatening Malaysia and Singapore. National security demanded a long-range strike aircraft to cope with that threat.
The Australian government made a formal request to Indonesia’s leadership that the RAAF be allowed to fly reconnaissance missions over the area. In response, the Indonesian military stated that it would shoot down any F-111s that attempted to overfly East Timor. At Tindal, up to ten F-111Cs were kept on alert with LGBs available if strikes were indeed required in support of INTERFET. The aircraft were ready to make a 1000-mile, four-jet flight with 16,000 lbs of LGBs, which could have been used to attack Indonesian communications centres in East Timor if required.
By the end of October 1999 the Indonesian Army had renounced its claim to the disputed area and withdrawn from East Timor. Reconnaissance flights by two RF-111Cs commenced on 6 November and continued until 9 December, the aircraft involved steering clear of Indonesia but providing valuable photographic data that was used to improve East Timor’s road network.
In March 2006 four Amberley-based F-111s were called in to sink the Pong Su, a 3500-tonne North Korean freighter that had been used to smuggle 150 kilograms of heroin into Australia in 2003. Using two 2000-lb GBU-10 LGBs, they sent the drifting vessel to the bottom of the sea, demonstrating one of their primary roles as anti-shipping strikers.
Despite the F-111’s excellent service record, the Australian government decided to withdraw the type in 2010, ten years ahead of its original drawdown date and despite considerable expenditure on spare aircraft and parts to sustain the fleet for an extra decade. Partly, this was due to legal action over the health issues involved in the `deseal/reseal’ chemical process required for replacing the rubber linings in the aircraft’s internal fuel tanks. The F-111 also had many enemies dating back to its troubled and long-delayed introduction to RAAF service 40 years earlier.
F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
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